I have always had a soft spot for Shepheard and Epstein's original masterplan and the earlier buildings at Lancaster: the long road with parking, the pedestrian campus, the vehicular north-south cross-route with bus stops beneath the central piazza (a classic 60s deck), and the faculty and other buildings with expressive pieces of white residential and special rooms on top of them: deadpan below, sculpted skyline. It's not the whole story, but it could be seen as a university with a Radburn plan. My feelings are supported by many at Lancaster who remember Gabi Epstein with affection and respect.
At the roundabout which connects the road from Lancaster to the university ring road, you are confronted with the vehicular cross-route driving straight ahead under the original buildings which form the west side of the central piazza. The long space down which the cross-route dives was to have been a forecourt for the whole university but, since it had buildings only on its north side, was only half realised. So the challenge was to complete the forecourt with a southern side, and this the new buildings do very successfully in at least three different ways.
First, they do indeed create a well-scaled south side to the forecourt. Second, you do not enter the university through the new buildings but along a new straight path beside them. This path leads you from the roundabout straight down the length of the forecourt into the new central piazza, straight to the heart of the life of the place; as soon as you are there you find the entrance to the old plus new library on your right. This reverse order allows the third main thing to happen - which, formally and functionally, is the most important for the university as a whole. Because you enter the library from within the heart of the university and then move outwards and forwards towards the roundabout, the first part of the library (the atrium) can be quite deadpan or generalised, the second part (the reading room) can be more expressive, and the Ruskin Library itself can be very particular indeed. This is just as it should be, the main library rising to its task of completing this part of the university: the Ruskin Library, whole, complete, peculiar and particular, standing guard in front of the new library front; standing guard beside the entry roundabout and the new forecourt and visible from near and far.
When you enter the main library from the junction between the new forecourt and the central piazza, you do so at the junction between old library on your left and the new library on your right. The old (60s) library is typical of its period - an open-plan, 'flexible', 'you give us generalised space and we'll arrange the furniture' kind of place. The new part of the library is of a very different ilk. It is organised on either side of a central atrium; or it will be when the scallop cut out of the south side of the building has been added as a second stage. Off the atrium open the backstage areas on the ground floor, book stacks on the first, and computer rooms and stations on the second. Overlooking the atrium on the first and second floors are informal working and meeting balconies: heavily used, clearly enjoyed. The sectional device of putting the linear plant room along the top of the atrium and letting skylight down on either side of it is effective in reducing glare and providing a certain mystery as to the source of the light, a certain sense of beyondness which makes the atrium satisfactory if a little stiff-boned.
But quite un-stiff and light and bright and airy is the truncated triangular reading room which forms a crescendo at the west end of the atrium. It has vertical solar shades, hung from the roof, white like the the rest of this big room. Below these shades is a very long, very horizontal, clear glass window which gives readers a wonderful view, which is probably 20 or 30 miles wide. A lack of funds has meant re-using old furniture in this room; each desk has been lined up to face the view, making the readers appear as a school of sardines headed for the bay, and the rather overwrought light fittings are not to my taste, but the overall effect of this large, calm place is a fine one.
After this large, calm reading room which terminates the library proper comes the unique object of the Ruskin Library. This was to have been approached in two ways: indoors from the library along a westward-pointing corridor for servicing both libraries, and on top of that corridor along a path running parallel to the main straight entrance path to the university. Only the second approach is achieved, and though I'm not convinced by the wide flight of steps that takes you from the university entrance path up on to the path which leads to the front door of the Ruskin Library, I am happy thereafter. For as soon as you are on this path, approaching the doorway across the acropolis on which the building sits, the effect is dramatic and successful.
At the end of the path you enter the bronze doors, quite unprepared for mjp's most dramatic and romantic place thus far. You see across the clear- glass and slate floor (the lagoon), the Venetian-red rectangular box of the archive store itself. It rises up through the whole section of the building and descends through the glass floor to the service floor below. This service floor is black, creating reflections which give the archive a kind of endless quality, both downwards and upwards. At this level, you can walk right round this big red box, between it and battered shiny, linseed-oiled, black walls to a workspace at the far end, a calm workspace with great views. On either side of the glass-floored vestibule, stairs lead to first-floor balcony exhibition spaces, connected across the building through the big red box by almost invisible glass-sided bridges. The red box is full of Ruskin archive material except for half of it at the top, where there is an extremely solemn but comfortable red meeting room. At night, air is sucked in through a small moat (which also contains floodlights) at the bottom of the building to cool it in the summer; light descends down between the box and the black walls, dramatically and effectively.
The building is truly an archive, a casket for a valuable collection. It is a particular and peculiarly successful icon at the entrance of the university and it is wonderfully whole and atmospheric and adventurous within.
The Michelin Guide gives one star for 'interesting', two stars for 'worth a detour' and three stars for 'worth a journey'. I givethe Ruskin Library three stars without hesitation.